Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Bible Fragment - From Wasteland

Journal Entry #17

I was asked today if I believe angels exist.

It was the fat man again. Looking down at me in the way only a man convinced of his own intellectual superiority can look down on a taller man. He asked in that same condescending tone, without really expecting a reply.

Today I decided to give him one.

I stepped momentarily away from the world around us and spoke of angels; what they stood for, or rather, the meanings human beings ascribe to them. Words floated forward such as goodness, and light. Generic, unworkable concepts that tell us little of substance.

I spoke of magic and the supernatural — where basically anything can occur without reason or repercussion. I spoke of physics and the laws of nature — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. I spoke of duality, and of Lucifer — a fallen angel from the Christian pantheon and wondered: if one angel could fall, why not many?

As I watched the human beings swirl around us, oblivious to all but their own self interest, I verbalized the unasked question. If angels exist, then must not their opposite also exist? If there are things of light, then somewhere, must there not also be things of darkness? We recognize them perhaps as nothing more than a wisp of a feeling, but no matter how superior we feel, how advanced we become, this ancient feeling persists.

As adults we have become logical and pragmatic; we rationalize and compartmentalize. We have lost the flexibility of our young minds, and realize that if confronted by these dark things our minds would snap.

It's not the knife we fear, but the thought of the knife. It's not the odd, quiet neighbor that disturbs us, but the thought of what he may be doing in the basement of the house he's never invited us in to see. And in those thoughts, we wonder what it would mean to our perception of reality if one day, when we awoke, we found ourselves lying naked, bound and gagged in that basement, with our odd, quiet neighbor staring down at us. So we put those thoughts away.

It's why most of us cannot look at a person in a wheelchair, or stand to be near the infirm, and the insane — to do so brings us nearer those locked rooms in our minds. It's why we conform and consume, and cling to religions that assure us we are among those chosen to ascend. If people can rationalize something, then they can convince themselves they no longer need fear that something.

And yet that ancient whisper remains.

I was asked today if I believe angels exist. Stepping back into the world I turned to my questioner and asked a question of my own. Knowing what I just told you could be true — wouldn't it be best if they didn't?

As the pious, superiority slowly vanished from his face, he mumbled something about an appointment, and with a backward glance turned, and walked quickly away.

And as he disappeared into the crowd — plump thighs chafing with each hurried step — a thought came to me and I smiled. Perhaps I'll pay him a visit and put my theory to the test. I know where he lives.

From Jacob's Journal in Wasteland
Copyrighted material

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Spending the Money - How to Get it Right

It’s a problem familiar to every independent producer - how to allocate limited resources so they have the greatest impact to the quality of the project.

No matter the budget, producers are often faced with the reality of fewer resources than hoped for. To create outstanding content, they must therefore concentrate on multiplying the value of the resources they have. Knowing how to do this, and when to spend the money to best effect is often difficult, but there are two factors we can focus on that are of disproportionate influence. These are time, and performance gain.

Time is the most important resource producers must manage. When deciding how to spend money, or allocate resources, it’s often the number one consideration. Spending money in ways that save time often translate to significant gains in quality and performance. The opposite also holds true – if the money being spent isn't creating incremental time gains, it almost certainly could be better spent in other areas.

Performance gain is the incremental improvement received with each dollar spent. The issue here is one of scale. How much better will the project be by spending a dollar in one area (locations, equipment, OT, etc.), as opposed to spending the same dollar somewhere else? Will spending that dollar create a better experience for the audience and stakeholders?

Making these decisions is as much an art as a science, but there is a simple rule of thumb that can help. When making these types of decisions I often use a very simple graph to help put things into perspective. On the X-axis is Time/Performance Gain, on the Y-axis is Resource Input (money, equipment, personnel). To illustrate I'll give an example.

On Welcome To Academia, we were shooting a very difficult scene at night, and approaching overtime, when the DP informed us we had a dead pixel on the camera. The choice was fix the pixel on set using the camera's software interface, or continue shooting and fix the dead pixel in post. Both alternatives had pros and cons.

Fixing the problem on set would take approximate 30 minutes while the crew stood idle and the clock ticked. Fixing it in post would allow us to keep shooting, but would require painting the affected area frame by frame. Depending on the action and length of the scenes, this could take a great deal of time. There was also the consideration of how a known problem with the footage would impact the cast and crew (on set this matters). So what was the better option?

When prepping the show, my producing partner,  Laura Cartwright, and I discussed this eventuality with our post house, and the camera techs at CSC in New York. We knew the rough cost-per-hour of fixing a dead pixel in post (it is impossible to determine exact time and costs until the footage is seen), and knew the precise cost of having our crew sit idle for 30 minutes, and the cost of each 30 minute period of OT. We decided to fix the camera on set.

On the surface it may seem as though idling the production would be the less efficient choice, but when all the variables were considered that was not the case.

As the chart at left shows, fixing the problem on set - under the circumstances we were in - was overwhelmingly the best choice. In a bad situation it made the best use of our resources because it gave us the highest time gain with the lowest resource investment.

It also gave us a chance to boost morale. While the camera department worked on the fix, the director rehearsed the last shots, and our wonderful craft service team whipped up some smoothies that cooled us down, and gumbo that restored our energy. 30 minutes later we were rolling cameras. Ultimately the scene looked phenomenal, and we made our day.

Deciding how to spend money comes down to deciding what actions consume the greatest amount of resources, while returning the smallest quality and performance gain. And conversely deciding which actions consume the least amount of resources, while returning the highest quality and performance gain.

Not easy choices, but when framed this way, producers can see beyond the stress of the moment to the bigger picture, and gain insight into how to direct resources so they make the greatest impact to the project, the team, the stakeholders, and ultimately the audience.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Connecting Content and Audience

As anyone who follows the media business (whether music, movies, publishing or TV) knows, they run on the premise that those in charge can predict the preferences of millions of individual people, and somehow create content that maximizes hits and minimizes flops. It is a business in which the top decision makers are paid extraordinary sums to provide those predictions about what the masses next want to see, hear, and read. In most cases those expensive predictions appear no better than guesses.

A growing body of research suggests that reliably predicting hits is impossible no matter how high up the totem pole someone is, or how much market research they have available. [1,2] And yet the process continues. Media executives make bets on future hits based on past hits, which is like making bets the next coin toss will come up heads because the previous one did.

Egregious examples of missed calls include the 8 publishers who passed on the Harry Potter novels; the studio that greenlit Land of the Lost; the networks that passed on Battle Star Galactica, and the record companies that blew off the Beatles. The list goes on, and what it tells us is this: when it comes to predicting what will succeed and fail in the media marketplace, William Goldman had it right, nobody knows anything.

And yet consumption of media continues to grow. A recent comScore study showed U.S. audiences watched more than 14.5 billion online videos in March of this year, up from 11.5 billion a year earlier. These numbers are staggering, and provide studios, networks, filmmakers, marketers, and content creators of all kinds an amazing opportunity. But what is it people are watching? What is it they are responding to and can that translate to other platforms?

In his excellent White Paper titled Distributed Influence: Quantifying the Impact of Social Media, Jonny Bentwood discusses what he calls the Arc of Influence, a model showing how topics spread, and influence causes action among different groups - those he calls influencers (people who lead the crowd) and influence-ables (people in their personal networks who follow their lead).

For influencers the Arc of Influence is:
1] Attention
How do influencers grab a user’s attention?
2] Engage
How does the influencer engage with the audience? Is it in an informative, entertaining, or challenging way?
3] Influence Is the content personal and relevant. i.e. Does it demonstrate need + context + timeliness?
4] Action Does the influencer inspire the individual to act?

For the influence-ables the Arc of Influence is:
1] Interest
The consumer identifies a need or interest in information
2] Fulfillment
The consumer seeks fulfillment from what they hope are credible sources (information, entertainment)
3] Review
The consumer evaluates the content provided
4] Action
The consumer forms or modifies their opinion and acts accordingly.

The chart below shows Bentwood's model graphically.

Viewed this way we see that while the context between the two groups is different, the end goal is unified. Influence isn't based on being predictive, it's based on delivering information that inspires action.

If we apply these same rules to the creation of content - replacing influencer with content creator, and influence-able with audience
we can draw some clear inferences. Content created to satisfy the internal goals of the creators has no intrinsic value. Content only has value when it appeals and has meaning to the macro environment viewing the content. 

To put it in the terms of the chart above, content creators must align their internal goal to 'grab the viewer's attention,' with the individual's interest; the internal goal to 'engage the viewer,' must align with the individual's goal to view satisfying content; the internal goal to 'influence behavior,' must pass the individual's evaluation of being credible, authentic and entertaining. In other words,
, content succeeds when it satisfies the one person with the power to make or break it - the audience.
If the ultimate goal of a network program, online video or motion picture is to influence an audience (it is, even if the goal is to make us laugh), we must remember that "influence is only influence when it motivates people to act."[1] To create that kind of result content creators must rethink how their content is made and who it is truly made for. They must be less concerned with predictions and attempts to recycle past successes - the media world moves far to quickly for that - and more concerned with creating quality content that engages passionately with audiences.

This doesn't mean we should ignore internal goals, we can't. It means only that we should pay more attention to the goals, interests, and motivations of the audience the content is being creating for, and remember the two most fundamental tenets of media...

- The audience is the client
- The individual is the audience

1. Bentwood, Jonny. Distributed Influence: Quantifying the Impact of Social Media. Edelman, 2008.
2. Mlodinow, Leonard.
The Drunkard's Walk. Pantheon Books, 2006.
3. Kim, W. Chan, and Mauborgne, Renee.
Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant. Harvard Business School Press, 2005.
4. Horn, John.
Summer Movie Season Cooling Off. LA Times, 2009.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Story about Storytelling

The last several weeks I have been thinking about storytelling. This isn't difficult in NYC because there are stories unfolding before us - and behind us, below us, and above us — everywhere we go. They begin and end on buses and subways, in the streets and in the parks, in cabs, pubs, diners, and even Upper East Side high rises.

Most of the time we miss these stories because we walk the streets with our mask of disinterest set firmly in place (If you are a New Yorker, you know what I mean). Recently however, I decided to remove my mask. I decided to look around as I wandered the City and even make eye contact with people! [yes, this is actually legal in NYC].

What first struck me was the sheer number of stories being told. Everyone, it seemed, was telling a story — even those trying their hardest not to tell a thing.

The vast majority of these stories seemed of interest only to the person telling it (or screaming/ranting/proselytizing it as the case may be). These stories either didn't attract attention at all, or attracted attention just long enough for us to realize the need to move quickly away.

Other stories attracted the attention of small groups, but failed to grasp the interest of the majority of people. The people telling these stories sometimes got our attention with gimmicks - jumping up on mailboxes, or playing guitar in their underwear — but the attention of those gathered quickly waned when the surface of the story failed to achieve any depth.

And then there were the stories we simply couldn't ignore. These very rare stories did more than just attract attention, they actually stopped dozens, and even hundreds of people in their tracks, who became emotionally involved and truly invested in the outcome. These stories shared a remarkable simplicity, and yet created boundless wonder and empathy. What these stories did was connect us to the one thing we all share - our humanity.

Later, tired from my wanderings, I stopped into a pub famous for their Guinness pours. I thought about how good that beer was going to taste, and about how cute the bartender was (please don't say anything to her, I am feigning disinterest so she'll be attracted to me).

As my Guinness settled I put words to something we all subconsciously know about stories, but seem to forget in the quest to over-hype audiences into the theater.

Tell a poor story and find yourself alone.
Tell a good story and find yourself some friends.
Tell a great story and find yourself an audience.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Can a film end a disease?

Several weeks ago a wonderful person named Claire Collier passed away from ALS.

If you're not aware, ALS - often referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease - is a nuero-degenerative disease that robs people of the ability to speak, move, and care for themselves. It is at once agonizingly slow, taking years to completely pilfer a person's life, and blisteringly fast. Yet as horrible as the physical effects are, there is more to it.

Ask any person with ALS, and they will tell you one of the most frustrating things they endure is people seem to define them strictly by their disease.

In a recent conversation, a lawyer living with ALS explained: “People sometimes walk up to my wheelchair and without even looking at me will ask my nurse’s aide how I’m doing. They proceed to have a conversation about me as if I weren’t there… as if I didn’t really exist.”

ALS is a thief, but what it cannot do is rob people of their personality. It doesn't steal their love of friends and family, their desire to hug their kids, have a drink, tell a joke, scratch an itch, watch a ballgame or a movie, play poker, or be seen, heard and involved.

Claire was tireless, outgoing and funny. It was impossible not to feel welcome in her presence. She met with Senators to advocate for patient's rights, and toasted anyone who fought the fight. When she got too weak to hold a glass of wine she had her friends drop a straw in her glass.

Losing people like Claire to this disease is unacceptable, so we're doing something about it. The idea is called Project Right Angle and it's based on a fundamental insight that others seem to have missed.

Project Right Angle is a non-profit initiative being founded to raise awareness and enlighten public perception towards people living with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and Muscular Dystrophy. It was founded on the notion that storytelling can do more than entertain -- it can inspire, transform and motivate action.

Our goal is to bring ALS research to the forefront of the public's attention by changing the paradigm by which messages are made, delivered and most importantly, received. We will do this through short, story-driven films about people with ALS distributed via the internet.

Because these short films (none longer than 3 minutes), tell stories about people instead of a disease, they are often humorous, sometimes irreverent, and always inspiring -- such as the young woman who maneuvers her wheelchair through a crowded mall looking for a bargain, but instead finds a most unlikely friend.

We've already got a dozen scripts ready to go, and a team of filmmakers ready to shoot. We're raising money to get this started right now. If you have something to say, or if you wish to help out financially, drop us a note. The official PRA web site will be launching soon, but in the mean time we can be reached at

So, about the title of this post: Can a film end a disease? Unfortunately no. But the people who watch, share, and create the films can, and that's the point. We'll see you on set.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Hard Questions & Ruthless Answers

At the core of every successful production, from multi-million dollar feature films to a viral videos streamed to the web, are the same fundamentals of story, strategy, scope, execution and impact. At the core of every savvy producer is an understanding of the relationships among these fundamentals, between them and around them.

When starting a new project the questions a producer asks are vital:

- What is the story we wish to tell?
- How will we tell it?
- Who is the audience?
- Why will these people respond?
- How will we reach them?
- What resources do we have available?
- How do we best use those scares resources?
- Who do we need on the team to make it happen?

Of equal or greater importance is the accuracy of our answers, and how we look at the process. This is where most productions break down.

Many producers, filmmakers, and financiers either fail to ask these questions at all, ask too late or fool themselves with their answers. They look at the each phase of a project (development, pre-production, production, post-production and distribution), as distinct entities to be tackled each in turn and one at a time. They prepare for one phase then proceed forward to the next with little thought to how each phase fits into the larger scope of the project.

So how should filmmakers view the process? How should they proceed?

Savvy producers understand that each phase of a project is a small piece belonging to a larger ecosystem, where each phase impacts the phases both before and after. Yes, before AND after.

The process of creating filmed media does not occur along a straight line, it's concentric. The chart below illustrates what I mean.

Looking at the process this way gives us a more global view and the ability to develop a more comprehensive plan to reach project goals. But a good plan still requires asking hard questions and being ruthless with the answers we give ourselves.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

The Antagonist in Film Business Plans - Revenue Projections

I recently participated in a discussion about the values and pitfalls of business plans for Indie filmmakers trying to attract equity investors. While they can contain relevant information about the project being developed, most film business plans also contain gross misinformation.

A business plan - when done well - helps convey a sense of professionalism in the project. As one participant concisely stated:

The business plan must be dispassionate in setting out the business proposition from an investment standpoint, covering "business" topics such as project description, key attachments, whether the production is bonded, how the investor's money will be cashflowed during production, producer's track record, prospects for domestic distribution and international sales, revenue guarantees (soft money, if any), proposal for recoupment of the investment and profit participation, tax considerations for investors, historical returns for films in the genre (a range! don't just point to those hoary chestnuts, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Blair Witch Project) and, depending on what kind of document it purports to be, legal boilerplate to satisfy securities regulators.

Most of the above mentioned items must be included in any business plan and a producer should know them regardless. My issue lies mostly with revenue projections and prospects for distribution many filmmakers include. The problem I see in most projections is that they are based on the tiny pool of films that actually secure distribution each year and ignore the hundreds (thousands) that don't.

For companies and producers that have existing distribution pipelines, those estimates hold some validity. For independent filmmakers and the financiers who back their films, they do not.

Showing that ten horror films released last year averaged $15mm in domestic theatrical gross revenues (arbitrary numbers), isn't painting an accurate picture to potential investors because it ignores the dozens (hundreds?) of other horror films made in that same time frame that didn't and won't earn a dime.

Most filmmaker's create business plans that mislead investors (whether purposely or due to their own ignorance), with overly rosy projections. Then they cover their asses by tossing in a risk clause.

So OK - caveat emptor (or caveat investor as the case may be). Investors must do their due diligence. But as a producer I take full responsibility for all business and financial matters on the films I produce and misleading the people trusting me with their hard earned money is not the way I want to start a business relationship.

When preparing a business plan for a feature film one must be accurate and forthcoming with projections. As a filmmaker that is an absolute obligation. The good news is that full disclosure won't dissuade someone if they are truly interested in your project. People with the fiscal strength to finance an independent film understand the relationship between risk and reward. And savvy investors will appreciate knowing they are working with someone with integrity who is watching out for their interests.

Quote used with permission of JBV Kelly.
Mr. Kelly can be reached at

Friday, January 09, 2009

In The Company of Strangers

We live in a world where new media (whether purposefully designed to or not), is more and more often experienced alone or in very small groups. We plug in our headphones, stare at the tiny screen, close the door on neighbors and surroundings, and begin our solo trip.

One form of media however, doesn't fit this mold. Unlike most media, a theatrically released motion picture is designed to be seen with dozens or even hundreds of other people. Most of whom are strangers we will never know.

Yet there is something intimate and welcoming about the shared experience of sitting with hundreds of other moviegoers. I think it is a feeling of searching for community.

I've read recently that filmed media is moving away from the theatrical model, to a more intimate delivery model. I don't buy it. Plugging into our portable media devices doesn't create a more intimate filmed entertainment experience, it creates a more isolated experience. That may serve us well for a 20 minute subway ride, but is hardly how we want to spend a Saturday night.

Going to the movies is a ritual. We hear about a new movie, gather our friends and head out for a piece of the promised adventure. We arrive at the theater, buy our snacks, rush to grab our seats and glance around to see who will be traveling along with us. We welcome these other travelers because we somehow unconsciously know that whatever emotions we feel will be magnified by the collective group.

When the lights dim, our focus shifts. We sit there in the dark, staring up at the screen and at that moment anything is possible. The excitement builds because at that moment there exists the possibility we will leave behind the world around us and become a player in the world unfolding before us.

People love going to the movies. We go in good economic times and bad. We go with friends and family and lovers. We go for a thousand different reasons and with a single hope -- to share in a great story, well told.

When a movie works, it touches us individually, transports us collectively and involves us totally. When a movie works we exist together in another place. When a movie works we sit in the dark not as strangers, but as comrades sharing love and pain and triumph.

We only become strangers again when the lights go up.